NEW YORK -- Novak Djokovic suffered a serious setback to his comeback earlier this year when he was bounced out of the French Open quarterfinals by a journeyman ranked No. 72 in the world. Down and out, Djokovic decided to put his tennis racket away and climb the French mountains with his wife for five days.
At one point, after laboring up Mont. Sainte-Victoire, the Djokovics sat and admired the spectacular view. "I thought of tennis, thought of the emotion that tennis provokes in me," he said. "It was all positives. I felt like I had a new breath for this sport."
Does he ever.
Two months after winning Wimbledon, Djokovic won his third US Open and 14th major title on Sunday with a 6-3, 7-6 (4), 6-3 deconstruction of Juan Martin del Potro.
"[There] is a whole wave of energy that I was thriving on from that moment onwards," Djokovic said shortly after winning. "Ever since then, the tennis is completely different for me."
It's also very different for his rivals, who once again are vulnerable to his all-court, all-out, rolling-thunder game. Djokovic is 26-2 since he plopped down on that mountaintop and got in touch with his tennis spirit. At Wimbledon, he put the punctuation mark on his comeback. The triumph at this US Open suggests he intends to be king of the hill again.
This is a sobering development for the other three member of tennis' vaunted big four, each of whom has come to bivouac on lower ground recently. Andy Murray is having trouble recovering from hip surgery. Roger Federer won the Australian Open but hasn't done anything of significant value since; he barely lasted four rounds in New York, stalling in the heat and humidity like a sleek sports car with a gas tank corrupted with water. Rafael Nadal, the Humvee of the ATP, limped away from Arthur Ashe Stadium, unable to complete his semifinal match with Del Potro because of tendinitis in his right knee.
Contemplating those titans and where they fit into his own scheme of things, Djokovic almost made it sound like they were less lethal rivals than valuable pit crew.
"Maybe 10 years ago, I would say I'm not so happy to be part of this era with Nadal and Federer," Djokovic said. "Actually, today I am. I really am. I feel like these guys, rivalries with these guys, matches with Federer and Nadal, have made me the player I am, have shaped me into the player I am today."
Djokovic was a relentless player Sunday. His athleticism, focus and precise shot-making were breathtaking. It's not quite as obvious what player he will be in the coming months and years as he continues to "evolve." He doesn't want to speculate on whether he can -- or even wants to -- dominate again the way he did in 2011-12 and again in 2013 through mid-2016.
"I feel like I'm on a whole new level," Djokovic said. "That's kind of my approach and my thinking. I just want to create from this moment onwards the most that I can create for myself, to get the best out of myself in every possible moment. That's really what I'm thinking about."
Djokovic meant getting the best out of himself in a general sense -- as a husband and father, not just the ATP's version of the better ball machine, made of flesh and blood.
"I feel like my mindset always was not to compare myself to any other year or season, because my life has turned upside down in the last couple years," Djokovic said. "[So many] changes that happened: becoming a father twice, being away from the tour six months, getting surgery, all these different things."
Once Djokovic starts, who knows where it will go. He already paid a price for success, when his motivation suffered and his personal life fell into disarray in 2016, shortly after he completed his career Grand Slam at the French Open. Those experiences played a large role in making him a somewhat reluctant warrior.
Nobody is likely to accuse Del Potro of harboring similar feelings of ambivalence. On Sunday, he set a new record for years spent between finals (nine) but looked like he could go that many again if need be to make another major final. The score line might not extol his virtues, but he stood toe-to-toe with Djokovic and traded roundhouse blows that, at times, rocked the champ.
"[Djokovic] played a great match, very smart game," Del Potro said. "I had my opportunities during second and third set, but I was playing almost at the limit all the time, looking for winners with my forehands, backhands. I couldn't make it because Novak was there every time. He's a great champion. So I'm glad for him."
Del Potro will be a force in the coming days. He hasn't won a major since the 2009 US Open, but he's a year younger than any member of the big four. He absorbed a fair amount of punishment in the fortnight in New York, but his surgically repaired left wrist held up well.
"I'm feeling good," Del Potro said, "I feel good with my two-handed backhands, as well. I will keep playing tennis for few more years. I don't know when will be my last tournament in this career, but I'm excited to keep surprising myself doing things like this. I'm very motivated to keep trying to win these titles."
And why not? Federer is a hoary 37, and Nadal's knees aren't likely to magically become those of a 20-year-old. Among the younger players, only a handful -- notably Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas -- represent a realistic threat to the status quo.
But for now, everyone is going to have to go through Djokovic. On Sunday, he heard the familiar chant, "Ole, Ole, Ole, Del-po, Del-po" in stadia around the world.
"This might sound funny, but my nickname is Nole," Djokovic said. "When they shout "Ole, ole, ole, ole," that's what I hear. I actually make myself hear that, to be honest, no word of a lie. I really do."
That's an effective technique for neutralizing the crowd. There's a reason this guy is king of the mountain again.